On JCK’s New Years podcast, I said my 2022 resolution was to talk to more people I disagree with. When I first contacted Australian photographer Hugh Brown (pictured left) – who specializes in taking photos of artisanal miners – I didn’t think he would be one of them. But after a long discussion, excerpted here, I decided that his skeptical take on “responsible sourcing” was worth printing, although I didn’t always agree with what he had to say. say.
I’ll offer some thoughts at the end, but for now, let’s listen to Hugh Brown:
JCK: How did you become interested in this subject?
Hugh Brown: I was in Ghana, working for a long-time client, when I saw these miners on the side of the road, and I was quite fascinated. It reminded me of those gold rushes in the developed world in the 1850s.
Then I traveled more and saw more of these miners, and again I was fascinated. I can’t remember how many countries I’ve been to, but in mid-2010 I decided I’d like to write a book on the subject.
And you’re working on this book now?
Yes. The book intends to show the diversity of the products concerned, the diversity of the topography, the diversity of the culture, the diversity of the race and the diversity of the geography. I want to show how varied and complex this industry is and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for artisanal miners.
There are many people who poke their noses into the world of artisanal miners. Imagine if they came from the Third World into our world and said we could and should do things better. We would tell them to run away very quickly. We would ask them what do they know?
We have a lot of solution seekers, and most of them don’t think about the effect of their solutions downstream. What if they displace artisanal miners from their livelihoods? It’s not correct.
When you complain about people with solutions, are you talking about non-governmental organizations (NGOs)?
NGOs are part of it, but I am talking about large companies, governments of developed countries. I’m talking about solutions – whether it’s formalizations of responsible sourcing, blockchain, all those things that have been shaken up – that have long-term implications for workforce utilization.
These solutions are beginning to support a transition to large-scale miners from small-scale miners. You have millions of artisanal miners, about 40 million. If you reduce the share of what is artisanally mined, many of them will lose their jobs. The question is, where are these people going? What are they doing?
Formalization or legalization ties these artisanal miners in knots. Along with this push for responsible sourcing comes a dwindling availability of minerals in the First World. They look at the third world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
What do you think of projects like Fairmined and Moyo Gems and GemFair, which develop special products unearthed by artisanal miners?
I’m sure some of these projects work. I’ve heard good things about some of them. But they tinker around the edges. They represent only a small percentage of the big picture.
If you were to expand these projects, I’m sure the end result would be the displacement of the workforce, and then you’ll be back on the same merry-go-round.
What about home-made situations with poor safety standards? Isn’t it fair to say that we don’t want people to risk their lives for the products we buy?
This is a difficult question. You try to superimpose western values on the third world. Most people I meet in artisanal mining make the active choice to do so. Is it fair that we turn around and say, “You can’t make a living, that’s not safe”?
The conditions don’t worry me. Artisanal miners have a sense of their own security. There will always be a part that will push the envelope to try and extract more money. But ultimately, any enhancement system should be self-sustaining and sustainable, and not dependent on a First World consultant overseeing its implementation and operation.
You also often hear: “Shouldn’t these people be better off doing agricultural work?”
There is always activity in the village fields and farms. People say we need to create alternative industries in these countries. If I walked up to you and said, “You shouldn’t work on what you’re doing,” you’d tell me to jump into the lake. These people earn two to three times more from mining than they would otherwise.
If we are really looking to create alternative industries, it requires investment from first world countries. But when all is said and done, people in the developed world don’t care about people in the Third World.
What about environmental damage caused by some miners?
There are clearly environmental issues with some artisanal mining operations. But no one dares to talk about it [the damage caused by] large-scale miners.
Child labor is also interesting. It receives a lot of attention in the press of developed countries. Many parents have children [work] because it’s the only way for their children to eat and survive.
You say the western world shouldn’t get involved, but aren’t we already involved? Often the markets in these countries are controlled by a small group that does not give workers fair value for their work. And then Western businessmen work with this group.
It’s a really difficult question. You can extrapolate that to almost any market. And that includes the First World. There are first world monopolies and oligopolies in almost every major industry.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people getting screwed over in artisanal mining. Clearly there are. But this is not a Third World problem.
What should people look for when buying items?
The problem is, to source properly, you need near-perfect information. When sourcing with imperfect information, it’s hard to make an argument: Is this gold responsibly sourced if I don’t know where it came from?
It is not possible for a consumer in the developed world to make a meaningful assessment. One of the problems I have with responsible sourcing advocates is that they seek to standardize something that cannot be standardized. You have 100 people who have 100 different answers right off the bat. It’s almost an illusory goal. How is someone sitting in New York going to assess whether something is responsibly sourced? Even if you know where a product comes from, it can take many years of being in the field to peel back all the layers of the onion.
I don’t want people looking at the pictures in my book and thinking, “That’s horrible. I want people to understand that there are so many elements to artisanal mining. It’s not all child labor or organized crime. You have to look at the other side of the coin. There are 40 million people [working artisanally] against 7 million people in large-scale mining, or 90% of global production.
Most of the money that artisanal miners make stays in the country, and then you have the multiplier effect of that money. Many of them offer upward mobility. The miners learn a lot of skills they wouldn’t have otherwise. It is a huge driving force for development in the Third World.
The other important point is that there is no clear goal as to what success looks like in this space. And you have so many people involved in the mix. You have millions of different people who have to agree on things.
One of the big moments for me was when an interviewer asked me, “What are we trying to accomplish here? And I had no idea.
I also had to tell him I was sorry and didn’t know how to buy a responsibly sourced mineral. And if I don’t know what responsible means after 16 years in the industry, what hope does a consumer or a jeweler or a wholesaler have?
Allow me to offer some personal thoughts:
I agree that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for artisanal mining, but I don’t think anyone expects that. It is very difficult to solve anything in this world. What you want is “continuous improvement” – so that standards are always raised in certain areas, with initiatives like mercury-free gold mining.
Moreover, true “responsible sourcing” does not necessarily imply eliminating artisanal miners; in most cases – certainly in this industry – there is an explicit effort not to. Responsible sourcing also involves protecting artisanal miners from violence.
This movement is still relatively recent. He will inevitably make mistakes and sometimes give the impression that he is not progressing; we face huge problems here, and putting the onus on for-profit companies to solve them may not always be the best idea. That said, I would wait before declaring it worthless (as Brown did). This could breed complacency.
Nor do I necessarily accept the idea that this movement is an effort by Western elites to grab Third World resources. The law most damaging to artisanal miners – the conflict minerals provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act – was inserted by pro-NGO officials at the last minute, without no one apparently understands its implications.
That said, Brown does have some thoughts. The world is now more connected, bringing us closer to the people digging up our materials. They are among the poorest people on the planet. It would be a crime to ruin their livelihoods, especially in the name of “responsibility”.
Artisanal miners need to be part of today’s sourcing conversation. Let’s make sure we don’t just talk to them, but with them.
If you want to support Brown’s work, go here. He also gives a lot of opinions on LinkedIn. And don’t hesitate to give your opinion below.
(All photos courtesy of Hugh Brown)
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